East Asia this year has been marked by rising tensions over the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands). As has been widely reported, China has dispatched government patrol and surveillance ships to intrude into Japan’s territorial waters off the islands, which lie in the East China Sea. Meanwhile, Beijing’s rhetoric has been more heated. In April, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson appeared to indicate that the Chinese government regarded the Senkaku Island issue as a core interest for China. This was the first government use of a term normally reserved for highly sensitive Chinese political concerns such as Taiwan, Tibet and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. And in recent days, China has made the very provocative decision to establish an air defense zone that encompasses the Senkaku skies.
With concerns rising that the situation could spiral out of control, it seems worth reviewing the facts regarding the sovereignty of the Senkaku and the options available for a sensible resolution to the issue.
Ever since it incorporated the Senkaku Islands into Japanese territory through a Cabinet decision in 1895, the Japanese government has consistently taken the position that the islands are an integral part of the territory of Japan. This stance accords with both international law and the historical facts. The Senkaku have consistently been under Japan’s effective control, except for a period (from 1945 to 1972) when the islands were placed under the administration of the United States as part of Okinawa prefecture.
Before 1971, neither China nor Taiwan made any claims to “territorial sovereignty” over the Senkaku Islands. For 76 years, neither government expressed any objection to Japanese sovereignty over the islands.
Why the change in position? In the late 1960s, a UN agency, the Bangkok-based Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE), surveyed the waters around the Senkaku. The survey suggested potentially rich deposits of oil beneath the seabed. After the ECAFE released its findings, in 1971, the Republic of China (Taiwan) made its first territorial claim to the islands. Several months later the People’s Republic of China followed suit.
So, let’s review the history of the issue more carefully. For ten years starting 1885, Japan conducted field surveys on the Senkaku Islands, scrupulously confirming that the islands had never been inhabited and showed no traces of having been under the control of China’s Qing Dynasty.
Based on this research, the Japanese government decided in January 1895 to erect national territorial markers on the islands, officially incorporating the Senkaku Islands into the territory of Japan. This administrative action was consistent with international law, namely the internationally accepted legal theory of terra nullius (land belonging to no one) concerning the rights of acquisition through occupation.
The Historical Record
As the record shows, Japanese inhabited the Senkaku from 1895 until immediately before the start of World War II. Japanese people sometimes lived on the islands to harvest albatross feathers. During another period, a factory was built to process dried bonito. The population of one of the islands, Uotsuri, topped 200 at one point. In 1920, residents of Ishigaki Island, which was under the jurisdiction of Okinawa prefecture, rescued Chinese fishermen caught in a storm in waters near the Senkaku. The Consul of the Republic of China in Nagasaki sent a signed and sealed letter of appreciation for the rescue in the area of “the Senkaku Islands in the Yaeyama District of the Japanese Empire’s Okinawa Prefecture.” The letter cited the names of the residents of Ishigaki Island, whom the consul noted “were willing and generous in the rescue operation.”
Just over three years after the People’s Republic of China’s birth, a January 8, 1953 article in the People’s Daily, an organ of the Communist Party of China had the Senkaku as Japanese territory. A World Atlas published in China in 1960 showed the islands as part of Japan. According to notes taken at meetings of the Chinese government around 1950, copies of which were recently obtained exclusively by the Jiji Press news agency, Chinese government officials were using the Japanese name “Senkaku Islands,” indicating that they considered the Senkaku part of Okinawa prefecture.
When Okinawa prefecture was provisionally placed under U.S. administration in 1945, the U.S. military used some of the Senkaku Islands as firing and bombing ranges. With the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese rule in 1972, the Senkaku returned to Japan, as part of the prefecture. The U.S. has clearly and repeatedly stated the Senkaku are “within the range of application” of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.
China argues that Japan stole the Senkaku Islands during the Sino-Japanese war, from August 1894 to April 1895. The claim suggests Japan “usurped” the islands using the turmoil of war as an excuse. But in making that assertion, China deliberately ignores two key facts: (1) Over a period of at least 10 years before the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, the evidence showed that the Senkaku were terra nullius, and not under the control of China’s Qing Dynasty; and (2) Japan incorporated the islands into its sovereign territory using procedures in accordance with international law, prior to the conclusion of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the Sino-Japanese War.